Japan New Rules Of Defence

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New Rules Of Defence

Japan won't go to war in Afghanistan, but pacifism is slowly fading. New rules will put it closer to combat than it's ever been since 1945


By David Lague/HONG KONG

Issue cover-dated November 01, 2001


IT SEEMED LIKE A HISTORIC moment. On October 1, the United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk sailed for the Indian Ocean from its base at Yokosuka with a screen of escorting Japanese destroyers in what appeared to be the strongest signal yet that pacifist Japan was about to join the Bush administration's war on terrorism. This speculation turned out to be premature as the Japanese warships soon returned to port.

Since then, Japan's House of Representatives on October 18 passed a new anti-terrorism bill that would allow the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, or SDF, to play a supporting role to the U.S. in its attacks on suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan.

Upper House approval for the bill is expected by the end of October and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is considering a U.S. request to send support and escort ships to the Indian Ocean in what would be Japan's biggest and most controversial offshore military deployment since its crushing defeat at the end of World War II in 1945.

"It may be that this is just a temporary departure from the normal course of events, but my hunch is that this is an irreversible kind of change," says Akio Watanabe, a university professor and president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. "This will have a long-lasting effect."

One apparent factor in Japan's desire to become a bigger player in international security was its humiliation in 1991 when, after protracted wrangling and agonizing over Japan's role in the Gulf War, Tokyo deployed six minesweepers to the Middle East. By the time the warships arrived, the conflict was over. That said, many Japanese at the time did not want the country to become embroiled in war, but that overwhelming pacifist attitude may be slowly changing.

In a crisis where Japan had as much at stake as most other major powers in preserving the security of Middle East oil supplies, constitutional restraints and bureaucratic inertia meant its only meaningful role was to sign a cheque for $13 billion as its share of the estimated $80 billion cost of the war. For this, Tokyo won little international gratitude.

For Robyn Lim, professor of international relations at Nagoya's Nanzan University, this was a turning point for Japan. She argues that Tokyo enjoyed a free ride from its security ties with the U.S. throughout the Cold War, when Japan had access to U.S. technology and markets while the American navy kept sea lanes open to the vital Middle East. Washington went along with this because it needed bases in Japan to threaten the Soviet Union. "This all started to unravel with the Gulf War," she says.

Since then, Japan has been incrementally increasing its military reach, first through peacekeeping--starting in 1992 with its first overseas mission since 1945, involving deployment of 600 engineers to the United Nations mission to Cambodia--and humanitarian missions, and more recently through more regional-defence cooperation.

While lawmakers debated the anti-terrorism bill that was carefully crafted to limit the scope of the SDF's support and assistance to the U.S. and its allies, Koizumi mounted a diplomatic blitz to reassure Japan's neighbours that his country would never renew its past aggression.

On October 8, he flew to Beijing for talks with President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, where he apologized for Japan's past conduct and explained how Tokyo expected to support the war on terrorism. "Japan will provide whatever support it can other than the use of force," Koizumi later told reporters.

A week later he was also apologizing and explaining in Seoul. The absence of any official protest from China or South Korea indicates that Koizumi has succeeded so far in allaying fears over Japan's military intentions, though Beijing continues to urge restraint.

"This is a very sensitive issue and we have kept reminding the Japanese side to act prudently," noted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi on October 9.

If Japanese ships soon sail into the Indian Ocean to join the U.S. and allied fleet, they are expected to perform a range of duties including fuel and supply delivery, repair work, communications, search and rescue, medical care and surveillance. They could also use their guns and missiles for defence if attacked, but can't deliberately enter combat zones. If, as expected, Japan's fleet includes an Aegis-class destroyer with highly-advanced command-and-control equipment, it would slot easily into the U.S. air-defence umbrella over warships in the Arabian Sea.

Key Japanese allies would welcome this move. Washington has been urging Japan to play a bigger military role since the Gulf War and this pressure has intensified under President George W. Bush's administration. Successive Australian governments have also said the time has come to bury fears of renewed Japanese militarism. Even small but influential Singapore earlier this year offered Tokyo the use of its naval facilities in a strong signal that it accepts Japan no longer poses a threat.

Apart from the contributions Japan could make to international military and peacekeeping coalitions, the major factor behind this support for a stepped-up military role is widely believed to be the need to counter growing Chinese power. Beijing will be closely monitoring Japan.

Meanwhile, it has clearly been accepted that the SDF can play an offshore role in disaster relief and humanitarian work. On October 9, six Japanese C-130H military transports touched down at Chaklala air base in Pakistan laden with relief supplies for an influx of refugees expected to flee the fighting in Afghanistan.

For the Japanese premier, the crisis following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington presented an opportunity to expand the reach of Japan's military beyond humanitarian assistance. From his first speech in May as leader, Koizumi has carefully laid out his vision for Japan to strike a more independent foreign policy with a military deterrent to match.

For some observers, these are the first steps to Japan becoming what is often described by politicians and the military as a "normal" country, that is, a nation with the military muscle to match its economic weight along with the responsibility that goes with being a major power. To get to this, the contentious Article Nine of Japan's constitution that renounces war would eventually have to be amended or dropped.

Only this legal and political obstacle prevents Japan becoming a major military power--but it is still a massive hurdle. Watanabe, however, believes it could happen in the next decade. "The attitude of the Japanese public is undergoing great change," he asserts.

An annual defence budget of $50 billion means Japan's 264,000-member defence force bristles with modern, hi-tech hardware. The force is currently neither equipped nor trained for offensive or expeditionary missions. However, in recent years the SDF has gradually introduced weapons such as the F-2 fighter that could attack ground targets, and has parliamentary approval to buy airborne refuelling tankers that could give its aircraft effective offensive range well beyond Japan's coastline.

A supporting role in the war on terrorism will put Japanese forces closer to combat than at any time in its post-World War II history.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 30, 2001

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